One year ago on May 20, 2013, a monster tornado struck our hometown of Oklahoma City, killing a total of 25 people, seven of them children, and injuring approximately 377 others, causing over $2 billion in property damage. The massive tornado pulverized a vast swath of Moore, a suburban community south of Oklahoma City, chewing up homes and businesses and severely damaging a hospital and two elementary schools.
Since then, the community has faced numerous challenges, namely debris removal, finding replacement housing, repairing or replacing damaged homes and rebuilding the schools and businesses destroyed by one of the most-powerful tornadoes in Oklahoma history.
Looking back a year later, the storm that raked across central Oklahoma — rated as a EF5 on the Enhanced Fujita scale — shattered many buildings, including the Briarwood and Plaza Towers Elementary schools, but it brought together our community like never before.
Storm Shelter Fraud
Although things appear to be improving, there are lingering issues that plague our community, including a significant amount of storm shelter fraud going on in Moore as well as the devastating effects left from shoddy building codes that were not up to par prior to the tornado hitting.
Almost immediately after the Moore tornado ripped a 17-mile wide path of destruction in Moore, building scammers started targeting local residents.
As Moore homeowners started to rebuild, out-of-state companies poured into Oklahoma, looking to make a quick buck off the storms victims. The first signs of fraud came from the companies that tarp roofs. Many homeowners made advance payments to out-of-town roofers for emergency services following the storm, instead of waiting for insurance claims to pay for the repair work. Many performed sloppy work — or no work — before leaving town.
Then “traveling” contractors who often drove expensive trucks with flashy rims and out-of-state license plates started soliciting work door-to-door and pressuring residents into making immediate decisions for cash-only work, according to the Oklahoma attorney general.
After surviving the tornado, but losing their homes to the storm, thousands of homeowners had to look for a new place to live. Enter the rent scammers. Criminals pulled legitimate home sale information from Realtor websites and posted them online on CraigsList as rental properties. Then, con artists ask potential renters to wire money for the property, but the money never reached a Realtor, nor were the properties for rent. Once the money was wired, the scammers vanished.
Building Code Violations Unearthed
The tornado carved a trial of destruction that left two of our elementary schools destroyed — Briarwood and Plaza Towers Elementary schools. When the tornado hit, the schools fell. As emergency crews cleared the debris, it was revealed that construction flaws and building code violations contributed to the collapse of the school. Seven children lost their lives at Plaza Towers after the walls collapsed. The Journal Record called Plaza Towers a “deathtrap.”
Later, an analysis of the debris of the Briarwood Elementary School by the American Society of Civil Engineers and Structural Engineering Institute found that the building’s steel roof beams were not attached to the walls and the cinder-block walls were not properly reinforced with steel rebar.
Now, the City of Moore has adopted new building codes to help mitigate tragedies like those we experienced at Briarwood and Plaza Towers.
Not only were the residents of Moore affected by the deadly tornado, but the federal government was defrauded too. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has reported an increase in benefits fraud. For example, Blake Self, a 19-year-old renter, claimed his “home” was damaged by the tornado. FEMA gave him $12,000 to rebuild. Turns out, he doesn’t own a home. Self was convicted of fraud and will spend the next three month in prison and has to repay FEMA the $12,000, according to the Justice Department.
One year later, the debris may be gone, but the recovery and rebuilding is painstakingly slow and is taking a long time to complete. As the community moves forward to meet the needs of those affected by the storm, we as a community, need to come together and have faith — as we face the storms of life.
Of the approximately 23,000 residential properties in Moore, the tornado completely destroyed 1,087 homes — and hundreds more sustained significant damage. About half of the homeowners — some 549 residents — have filed for a building permit with the City of Moore to rebuild. Additionally, some 400 have filed permits to remodel.
Living in tornado alley, we all have a responsibility to act, especially when approximately 2,400 homes were damaged by the Moore twister. With nearly 10,000 people directly impacted by the tornado, the community is still dealing with the aftermath of the storm’s devastation and many homeowners who lost their homes in the tornado are still living in temporary housing.
As multiple tornadoes continue to hit several Midwestern states, including Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri and Iowa, one of the purposes in writing this is to share some of the lessons we’ve learned in the aftermath of the Moore tornado with other communities who have more recently been hit with tornadoes and those who unfortunately will be hit by severe storms and tornadoes in the future.
Meanwhile, the healing process continues for many in our community and our state, but there is still much to be done.
Sheldon Detrick is the chief executive officer of Prudential Alliance Realty in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and Prudential Detrick/Alliance Realty in Tulsa, Okla. He can be reached at sdetrick@PruHomeQuest.com.